Real Madrid 1-2 Atlético Madrid Copa del Rey

Real Madrid (4-3-3): López – Essien, Albiol, Ramos, Coentrão – Khedira, Alonso, Modrić – Özil, Benzema, Ronaldo
Atlético Madrid (4-1-4-1): Courtois – Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Filipe Luís – Suárez – Costa, Gabi, Koke, Arda – Falcao

Atlético beat Real for the first time since 1999, in the final of the Copa del Rey no less, with José Mourinho condemned to the first trophy-less season of his career. After hitting the woodwork three times (and finding Thibaut Courtois in outstanding form) Real Madrid fell apart after being the dominant side for much of the game.

With Raphaël Varane out and Pepe apparently overlooked for giving his opinion on the Mourinho-Casillas feud it was Raúl Albiol who partnered Sergio Ramos in central defence. Mourinho went for a 4-3-3: Mesut Özil on the right of the attack, with Luka Modrić in midfield alongside Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, which meant Ángel di María was only on the substitutes’ bench.

Diego Costa, normally Radamel Falcao’s partner up front, played wide-right as Atlético went with a five-man midfield. However, instead of their flat-midfield-five this was a 4-1-4-1 with Mario Suárez as the ‘holder’.

Rather than waiting for Real to attack them, Atlético began their defensive duties with an aggressive stance preventing easy circulation of the ball.

Atlético's defensive starting point

Atlético’s defensive starting point

Once Real Madrid had circulated the ball out of defence – usually via Modrić or Alonso coming deep to collect – Atlético fell back into a standard 4-1-4-1:

Two banks of four, with Suárez (yellow) holding, and Falcao picking up Alonso (blue)

Two banks of four, with Suárez (yellow) holding, and Falcao picking up Alonso (blue)

With Özil starting in a wide-right position but coming inside, Real’s width on the right came from Michael Essien who was often in space (see image above) – Simeone reasoning that allowing Essien room, who isn’t someone who’s going to hurt you with the ball, was a price worth paying for the midfield solidity.

Falcao was detailed to pick up Alonso, but at times the regista stationed himself much higher than usual, giving Real a rather ‘flat’ three-man midfield. This left Falcao in a quandary, if he followed Alonso up the pitch Atlético lacked an outlet, however if Falcao didn’t pick him up that meant either Koke or Gabi having to leave the protective midfield layer Atlético had erected. Simeone chose the former, and with Falcao often in deep positions, the outlet ball was to Diego Costa on the right flank.

The Real Madrid midfield’s standard pressing was Khedira on Koke, Modrić on Gabi, with Alonso to press high up the pitch on Suárez. Benzema’s task was to press the centre-backs and interfere with their passing options:

Real Madrid's default pressing - Alonso marked with blue

Real Madrid’s default pressing – Alonso marked with blue

With Falcao dropping deep trying to pick up Alonso, Atlético’s default was to look for the runs of Costa behind the left-back Coentrão or between the full-back and Ramos at centre-back. This bypassed Real’s trio of Khedira-Alonso-Modrić (and with Özil drifting across it was often a four-man central midfield) and looked to take advantage of any space created by Coentrão’s attacking instincts.

Rather than play through Real's midfield (green), Atlético looked for the runs of Costa (pink)

Rather than play through Real’s midfield (green), Atlético looked for the runs of Costa (pink)

Falcao was often to be found between the lines of midfield and defence – Real weren’t trying to hold a high line, and with Khedira-Alonso-Modrić supporting the attack, the Colombian found space when receiving the ball in relatively deep positions in front of the Real back four.

Falcao (yellow) holds the ball in-between the lines (Real's midfield trio marked with green) as Costa (pink) makes his run

Falcao (yellow) holds the ball in-between the lines (Real’s midfield trio marked with green) as Costa (pink) makes his run

Atlético equalised from a move that encompassed a lot of their game-plan (Real had gone ahead in the 14th minute through a Ronaldo header from a corner). As he approached the penalty area Ronaldo was dispossessed by Suárez who played a quick ball to Falcao 10 yards inside Atlético’s half. Holding off and evading Albiol, he skipped past Khedira, saw the run of Costa, and after a slide-rule pass for the Brazilian it was 1-1. It was quick, vertical, and beautifully executed, taking only 11 seconds from Suárez’s tackle to Costa’s shot hitting the net.

Falcao (path of the ball in yellow) to Costa (run marked pink)

Falcao (path of the ball in yellow) to Costa (run marked pink)

At the start of the second-half Alonso returned to his ‘normal’ position sitting in front of the back-four, moving laterally to escape the attentions of Falcao; Alonso’s slightly deeper position meant that Falcao had less space to operate in and Real weren’t so vulnerable to the runs from deep of Costa (and to counter Falcao’s attentions of Alonso, Sergio Ramos began to bring the ball out of defence).

With Ronaldo and Özil on the flanks often the key figure was Modrić, his positioning intelligent, always looking for the ball, and combining with the wide men well. Below he has has taken up an advanced position, near Özil, looking for space just behind the Atlético midfield.

Alonso (green) to Özil (pink) whilst Modrić (yellow) searches for space

Alonso (green) to Özil (pink) whilst Modrić (yellow) searches for space

Özil's pass (path marked in pink) to Modrić in-between Atlético's lines

Özil’s pass (path marked in pink) to Modrić in-between Atlético’s lines

With Real finding their way through Atlético, predominately via the combinations of Coentrão-Modrić-Ronaldo on the left flank, they created enough chances to have won the game easily – in the second half alone they hit the post three times (and in 61st minute Ozil’s shot was blocked on the line by Juanfran after Benzema’s shot rebounded off the woodwork) – but a wonderful display from goalkeeper Courbois kept Atlético alive (this save from Özil in extra-time has to be seen to be believed).

Throughout the second half persistent tetchiness from both sides escalated (in total there was 15 yellow cards, and 2 red in extra-time for Ronaldo and Gabi), and Real’s sense of frustration-verging-on-injustice became palpable: Coentrão picking up the ball and head-butting it early in the second half when a decision went against him, in the 72nd minute Ozil was booked for slapping the ball at the linesman, and moments later Mourinho exploded off the bench to ‘protest’ at perceived simulation by Atlético (Mourinho was sent off by the referee for his trouble).

Extra-time

After somehow communicating with his assistants Mourinho made a triple change at the start of extra-time, Arbeloa, di María and Higuaín on for Coentrão, Modrić and Benzema, switching to a 4-2-3-1 (López – Essien, Albiol, Ramos, Arbeloa – Khedira, Alonso – di María, Özil, Ronaldo – Higuaín), and all three changes were presumably due to fatigue (Modrić was arguably Real’s central figure whereas Khedira was having an exceptionally average game).

With Alonso and Khedira leaving space behind them as they joined the attack whilst Real looked for the winner (and then equaliser), and the game naturally stretched through tiredness, Atlético started having chances after being almost completely dominated in the second-half. The better team in extra-time, this culminated in the 98th minute when a wonderful delivery by Koke was headed in by the central defender João Miranda at the near post.

The last Real chance came in the 104th minute when Higuaín shot from 7 yards, but Courtois made yet another great save. At the start of the second period of extra-time Real went 3-3-4 (López – Arbeloa, Albiol, Ramos – Essien, Alonso, Khedira – Özil, Higuaín, Ronaldo, di María), but with Ronaldo’s sending off in the 114th minute – retaliation for being scythed down by Gabi – there was no way back for Real Madrid.

This was the worst season of my career. I don’t think Atlético deserve to be champions but they won the title. We had two clear chances on goal, we hit the post three times.” – José Mourinho speaking after the game

Atlético Madrid 1-2 Barcelona

Atlético Madrid (4-5-1): Courtois – Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Insúa – Adrián, Gabi, Thiago, Koke, Arda – Falcao
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto – Alves, Piqué, Adriano, Alba – Fàbregas, Song, Iniesta – Sánchez, Messi, Tello

Diego Simeone set up to defend deep, with a flat-midfield-five strung across the pitch. As Barcelona approached, the midfielder with responsibility for the zone was to challenge the player in possession, forcing the ball to be played horizontally. The midfield line itself didn’t budge, but Atlético’s men within it checked the threat sequentially, harassing the ball-carrier from flank to flank – once the ball was played the man returned to the midfield-five as a colleague would burst forward from the line to challenge Barcelona in another zone. Falcao’s role was to look for space and to be an outlet when Atlético regained possession, rarely taking part in any defensive work besides positioning himself between Barcelona’s centre-backs.

The images below are of a 15-second spell early in the first half:

ath-ol

ath-ol-02

ath-ol-04

Barcelona tried some chipped balls over the midfield wall for the forward players (and runners from deep), but it was all rather pedestrian, more joy was had down by switching the play from flank to flank, dragging the midfield-five across the pitch and slowly pushing them back to almost the penalty area. Barca were occasionally able to set-up camp 35-yards from goal, but created very little, with the game at times being played at a walking pace.

Atlético are a very direct side, Simeone doesn’t place a great value on possession for possession’s sake, instead preferring to get the ball into the final third with quick passing and excellent movement on the flanks. The full-backs, Insúa and Juanfran, were pushing up and combining with Adrián and Arda, taking advantage of Barcelona’s weakness of being susceptible to quick play in wide areas when Alves and Alba have gone forward.

To prevent Falcao from being isolated, when possession was regained three or four short passes were made in midfield to hold onto the ball, escaping the Barcelona press, and give the wide players time to move forward to support the Atlético number nine.

Second half

Atlético’s goal came early in the second half from a lazy cross-field ball, intercepted, giving the home side a three-v-three with Falcao finishing the move with his usual unfussy brilliance.

Dani Alves had picked up a slight injury towards the end of the first half, meaning Marc Bartra entered the fray at centre-back with Adriano going to the right of defence. Chasing the game in the 60th minute, Barcelona made their remaining two substitutions, switching from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 in the process: the rested Sergio Busquets and David Villa on for Alex Song and Adriano.

Barcelona’s second-half 3-4-3:
barca-3-4-3
diagram via footballtactics.net

Busquets/Song is an obvious one, admittedly the ex-Arsenal man hasn’t enjoyed the best of form since joining Barcelona, but when Busquets is missing from the midfield it’s easy to see what’s lacking (and what Song can’t provide): Busquets gives Barcelona a tempo, his metronomic passing dictating the rhythm of Barcelona’s play, in addition to his phenomenal positioning and tactical intelligence. A few years past Sid Lowe claimed Dani Alves as the second-best player in the world (a polemic I still find highly amusing), but a similar claim made about Busquets wouldn’t be so far off the mark.

Barca’s diamond outnumbered the central midfield trio of Gabi-Thiago-Koke, and with four highly technical players (Messi, Iniesta, Fàbregas and Busquets) in such close proximity (plus three forwards Sanchez-Villa-Tello just ahead) Barcelona started to play their way through the Atlético midfield wall. In possession, Barcelona often left Piqué with a one-v-one at the back, Busquets using judgement as to when to join the midfield or drop back slightly and support the central defender.

The diamond midfield (yellow) and fullbacks (red) gives Barca six players versus Atlético's five-man midfield wall (pink)

The diamond midfield (yellow) and fullbacks (red) gives Barca six players versus Atlético’s five-man midfield wall (pink)

Then, in the 68th minute as Barcelona were starting to get a real grip on the game, very quietly (the TV cameras almost missed it) Messi left the pitch with a re-occurrence of his hamstring trouble.

1-0, and with one eye on the Copa del Rey the following weekend, Simeone took off Falcao. It looked all the world a foregone conclusion: a goal up, Messi injured, Barcelona out of substitutions and down to ten men.

Instead, Barca organised themselves into a loose 4-4-1*, and went and scored almost immediately. From a throw-in, a one-two between Fàbregas and Sánchez in the Atlético penalty box, and it was 1-1.

Although down to ten Barcelona continued to aim at retaining possession, whilst Atlético still strung five across midfield (however it was now a definite 4-3-3 in attack). Able to keep the ball better, and with the game much more stretched, Simeone’s men went in search of a winner and in the final 15 minutes it felt more like an even contest (i.e. Barca 10 v Atlético 11), but then the second goal came; a quick break with the unfortunate Gabi diverting Villa’s scuffed shot beyond Courtois.

* Pinto – Bartra, Busquets, Piqué, Alba – Sánchez, Fàbregas, Iniesta, Tello – Villa

Lyon 0-1 PSG

Lyon (4-2-3-1): Lopes – Fofana, Koné, Umtiti, Dabo – Mvuemba, Gonalons – Benzia, Grenier, Gourcuff – Gomis
PSG (4-4-2): Douchez – Jallet, Alex, Sakho, Maxwell – Pastore, Thiago Motta, Matuidi, Lavezzi – Ménez, Ibrahimović

Rémi Garde has used a variety of formations over the season, and against PSG he went with a 4-2-3-1 with a double-pivot of Maxime Gonalons and Arnold Mvuemba, Clément Grenier ‘in the hole’, Yoann Gourcuff on the left, 18-year-old Yassine Benzia kept his place on the right of the attack, and after scoring twice against Nancy the previous week as a substitute Bafétimbi Gomis replaced Lisandro López as the centre-forward.

Carlo Ancelotti replaced Salvatore Sirigu, Thiago Silva and Marco Verratti (all suspended), with Nicolas Douchez, Mamadou Sakho and Thiago Motta, and continued with the experiment of Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left-side of midfield, Javier Pastore on the right, with Jérémy Ménez partnering Zlatan Ibrahimović up front.

The normal PSG ‘two banks of four’ had a twist: Concerned by Mvuemba’s playmaking abilities, Matuidi was to engage him immediately, and took up a position in advance of his midfield colleagues.

ol-psg-01

In defence normally Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-4-1-1, but here Garde also did something unusual, his team defended in a 4-3-2-1 formation: Gourcuff and Benzia dropped back deep to cover the flanks and Mvuemba stepped forward, in-line with Grenier, to defend zonally further up the pitch. Roughly speaking, this was Mvuemba on Matuidi and Grenier on Thiago Motta, along with Gomis who intelligently pressed the PSG central midfield, closing any passing lanes through the centre.

ol-psg-02

With a five-man midfield denying PSG any space the Parisians struggled to get the ball to their front men and in the first stages of the game, Lyon were clearly the better team. When in possession, Lyon caused PSG problems with Grenier and Gourcuff swapping positions and OL’s fullbacks providing width, whilst for PSG both Ibrahimović and Ménez were conspicuous by their absence with regard to any defensive duties.

Halfway through the first-half and PSG’s game-plan changed: The front pair of Ibrahimović and Ménez started picking up the double-pivot of Gonalons and Mvuemba, interfering with OL’s build-up play, and thus allowing the PSG midfield to track the movements of Benzia-Grenier-Gourcuff much better. In attack, Javier Pastore started to find space between Gourcuff and Gonalons, and PSG’s fullbacks (especially Christophe Jallet) began taking up positions wide and high up the pitch to get around Lyon’s packed midfield. With Maxwell and Jallet receiving the ball in those wide areas OL’s defensive line, which was being held quite high, started to get pushed back and PSG began making chances of their own.

Second-half

With a rough parity existing between the teams at half-time, OL switched to 4-1-4-1 for the second half (Grenier and Mvuemba as inside-midfielders and Gonalons as the holder). PSG enacted a strategy of aggressive pressing high up the pitch, pinning OL in their own half and leaving centre-forward Gomis isolated. Ibrahimović was dropping deeper looking for the ball, and with Pastore tucking-in making an extra central midfielder, PSG were able to take control of the game.

The goal was a result of individual error and the PSG pressing (the move actually started with a Lyon goal-kick), with Gonalons sloppily getting caught in possession by Thiago Motta whilst both OL fullbacks were pushed up the pitch. The ball broke for Ibrahimović and left-back Dabo committed himself, diving in on the Swede (needless to add, but Zlatan skipped past him effortlessly) meaning the centre-backs Umtiti and Koné were pulled across the pitch to their left. After a quick pass inside to Thiago Motta, who found Ménez in space with a first time ball, PSG were ahead with the title in their grasp.

Koné and Umtiti (blue) dragged across to cover for Dabo (red), leaving Ménez (green) in space

Koné and Umtiti (blue) dragged across to cover for Dabo (red), leaving Ménez (green) in space

Lyon do have a severe problem with individual errors from their defenders and yet again it cost them – but it was the pressing from PSG that forced the error from the usually reliable Gonalons.

After playing two formations in the game already, in the 64th minute Garde brought on Lisandro (for Mvuemba) and OL changed again, this time to a 4-4-2. An odd choice as when Garde used 4-4-2 recently against Reims and Sochaux it looked less than impressive – after imaginatively using a 3-5-2 at the Parc des Princes in December it was a small surprise that Garde’s last throw of the dice was to mirror PSG’s 4-4-2.

Yet it wasn’t quite, in the 76th minute Garde brought on 17-year-old Anthony Martial for Benzia, and then in the 82nd minute Fares Bahlouli (another 18-year-old) replaced Gomis and OL reverted back to a 4-1-4-1. The fourth formation of the game for OL.

Fiorentina 0-1 Roma

Fiorentina (4-3-3): Viviano – Tomović, Gonzalo, Compper, Pasqual – Aquilani, Pizarro, Valero – Cuadrado, Jovetić, Ljajić
Roma (4-2-3-1): Lobonț – Torosidis, Burdisso, Castán, Balzaretti – Bradley, De Rossi – Lamela, Totti, Florenzi – Osvaldo

Initially the game started at breakneck speed with Fiorentina attacking predominantly down their left with the fullback Pasqual, false-nine Jovetić, and ‘inside-out winger’ Ljajić causing Roma problems. The ‘three playmakers’ of Aquilani, Valero and Pizarro in the midfield were mobile and dangerous, but Roma were able to counter-attack well with Totti, playing in the hole behind Osvaldo, central to all of Roma’s play.

Fiorentina try different approaches

If the first minutes were open and end-to-end, around the 10 minute mark Fiorentina switched gears and settled into a pattern of defending very deep, sometimes with every man behind the ball, looking to counter-attack Roma with quick, vertical play through the midfield.

Fiorentina's back four (red) and midfield (blue) defend deep

Fiorentina’s back four (red) and midfield (blue) defend deep

If Fiorentina could press Roma in dangerous areas around the penalty box then they would, but their default was to fall back into their own half quickly and not leave any gaps for Roma/Totti to exploit.

Whereas in the opening stages the pressing had been much more aggressive with Pizarro, Valero and Aquilani closing down their midfield counterparts, now Fiorentina were so determined to get back into position and mark their respective zones, that Roma’s players could often carry the ball until they were 35 yards from the Fiorentina goal before being checked (in the 19th minute, the centre back Castán ran with the ball for 60 yards, without a challenge).

Additionally, with neither side trying to hold a high line or staying compact, the game was often suddenly stretched with a lot of space in midfield if either side broke quickly. This was especially true if Fiorentina were able to break through the initial ‘offensive press’ led by Totti and Osvaldo.

Roma’s first 30 minutes

The key idea for Roma was to stop Pizarro’s distribution and usually it was Totti who would pick him up. Normally Pizarro (as the deep-lying midfielder) would be taken by the attacking midfielder (Totti), but here Roma’s striker Osvaldo also concentrated on Pizarro too, with Totti then interfering with the Fiorentina centre-backs’ passing.

Totti (red) pressing the man on the ball and the pressing matchups

Totti (red) pressing the man on the ball and the pressing matchups

This made a lot of sense: with Totti having a free role (he was on the left, then the right, then he was dropping deep into midfield), when possession was lost often the closest man to Fiorentina’s regista was Osvaldo who plays very centrally. At other times with both Totti and Osvaldo pressing the Fiorentina defence, Totti was clearly instructing the central midfielder Bradley to push up and take Pizarro.

Roma's aggressive pressing meant Fiorentina had trouble playing out from the back

Roma’s aggressive pressing meant Fiorentina had trouble playing out from the back

In the 30th minute, a long delay due to a collision between Lobonț and Fiorentina defender Gonzalo left the goalkeeper with a broken nose (he was replaced at half-time with Goicoechea) and after the restart Fiorentina adjusted again: If the first 10 minutes had been a little too open and frantic, followed by a period of more measured defensive play, then the final 15 minutes of the first half saw Fiorentina gain real control.

Fiorentina take over the game

Roma’s initial pressing had subsided – it’s unrealistic to expect the 36-year-old Totti to keep up that energy level – and with Fiorentina now being able to play out of defence, the midfield of Pizarro, Aquilani and Valero started to dictate the game. Two key figures for Fiorentina were the left-back Pasqual and Ljajić on the left-wing. Ljajić receiving the ball wide and cutting inside, with Pasqual overlapping and looking to get to the byline; for large periods it was almost as if Fiorentina were playing with two left-wingers.

Story of the game: Fiorentina attack down their left

Story of the game: Fiorentina attack down their left

Pizarro was taking up more advanced positions, meaning Roma’s central midfield of Bradley and De Rossi were trying to cover Pizarro, Aquilani and Valero, Jovetić’s dropping deep from the centre-forward position, and Ljajić coming inside and often exchanging positions with Jovetić. This was too much for the Roma midfield-duo to cope with, and the concentration of the play down the left flank with the overlapping Pasqual led to a number of good chances for Fiorentina.

The second half began as the first ended, with Pasqual pushed high, Ljajić threatening and exchanging positions with Jovetić (who was finding and creating space wonderfully as a false-nine), excellent movement by the Fiorentina midfield trio, and with the play being mainly down the left, sudden switches of play to Cuadrado on the right led to a number of chances.

The movement and exchange of positions of Jovetić (yellow) and Ljajić (blue) caused Roma problems

The movement and exchange of positions of Jovetić (yellow) and Ljajić (blue) caused Roma problems

Roma could worry Fiorentina on the counter-attack, however this only looked to happen through Totti, with every Roma ball seemingly searching him out. If Fiorentina attack and defend as a team – and with ‘attacking as a team’ meaning that with almost everyone forward they were liable to get caught on the counter – then Roma were attacking as a four and defending as a six. Or rather, it’s fair to say Roma were ‘attacking as a two’, with Totti and Osvaldo, as Lamela and Florenzi were next-to-invisible for long stretches of the game.

With Roma playing 4-3-3 under Zeman for over half a season, and switching to 3-5-2 when Andreazzoli took over in February, then reverting back to 4-3-3 for two games (versus Torino and Pescara), and now playing 4-2-3-1, it’s no real surprise that Roma looked somewhat disjointed, relying on long passes to Totti and Osvaldo. Roma needed to slow the game down, enjoy a little possession, but were unable to cope with Fiorentina’s high tempo – the energetic pressing of Totti and Osvaldo a distant memory, it was now Fiorentina who were closing down Roma’s play high up the pitch.

The change to 3-5-2

Andreazzoli had tried stemming the Fiorentina play by taking off the anonymous Lamela and bringing on Pjanić, and he’d taken up a left-sided midfield position but with orders to come inside to stop Roma being outnumbered in the central areas (Florenzi moved from the left-wing to the right). Fiorentina had responded with a double substitution in the 71st minute: a straight swap with Aquilani off, and the fresh legs of Fernández on, and oddly Jovetić off, veteran Luci Toni on. False-nine replaced with English-style target-man.

However Pjanić-for-Lamela wasn’t having any effect on the waves of Fiorentina attacks and in the 74th minute, with Roma barely in the game, Andreazzoli brought on the centre-back Marquinhos for Florenzi and Roma went 3-5-2: Goicoechea – Marquinhos, Burdisso, Castán – Torosidis, Bradley, De Rossi, Pjanić, Balzaretti – Osvaldo, Totti.

Facing Fiorentina’s 4-3-3, going to a three-man defence isn’t as crazy it seems at first glance. Roma’s most immediate problem wasn’t so much the Fiorentina wide-players – they were drifting inside – but that they were getting overrun in the central areas: the two-man midfield of De Rossi and Bradley couldn’t cope with the three-man midfield of Aquilani-Pizarro-Valero, and the wide players, Cuadrado and Ljajić, coming inside. As the wide players were a secondary problem caused by Fiorentina’s dominance in central midfield, cutting off the supply to them was the priority.

The key to making a three-man defence work against a three-man attack lies with the wide-midfielders (for Roma this was Torosidis on the right, Balzaretti on the left): If Fiorentina attack down Roma’s right, then Torosidis has to move up and check that threat, whilst the three-man defence moves across to the right behind him and Balzaretti drops back from left-midfield into a left-back position, making a four-man defence. Likewise, if the play is on Roma’s left, then Balzaretti has to meet the threat, whilst the three-man defence moves to the left behind him and Torosidis drops back into the right-back position, again making a four-man defence. With the three central midfielders Bradley-De Rossi-Pjanić matching Fiorentina’s trio of Aquilani-Pizarro-Valero, this should work, and indeed a rough balance returned to the game: both sides took turns in attacking one another.

Roma's switch to 3-5-2 with defence marked with blue and midfield with yellow

Roma’s switch to 3-5-2 with defence marked with blue and midfield with yellow

To Fiorentina’s immense credit, soon after Roma switched to a back three, the right-back Rômulo (on for Tomović) and inside-midfielder Fernández joined Cuadrado on the right flank, to mirror left-back Pasqual, inside-midfielder Valero, and Ljajić on the left. In the image above you can see the two ‘sets of three’ of Fiorentina on each flank trying to overload the wide-midfielders. (Try imagining an English team making that in-game tactical adjustment.)

From the 30th minute until the switch to 3-5-2 in the 74th minute Roma were getting outplayed (the odd Totti-led counter-attack notwithstanding), but the change to three at the back gave them a way back into the game: no longer out-numbered in midfield they were able to build some play once more.

With both sides attacking each other as the game came to an end, the goal came from a corner (Osvaldo, header, 92nd minute) won by a quick counter with Totti and Osvaldo. It’s far too much to say the change to 3-5-2 won it for them as Roma had been counter-attacking with Totti and Osvaldo all game, and Fiorentina created so many chances to score – including De Rossi’s deliberate handball in the penalty box missed by the ref, and even as late as the 91st minute, Fernández hit the post with a good shot – but Roma looked far more comfortable once they moved to three at the back than they did with their ‘broken’ 4-2-3-1.

Lille 3-3 Sochaux

Lille conspired to give away a three goal lead, to a vastly outclassed Sochaux, and at 78 minutes into the game were coasting with the finale improbable and bizarre.

Lille (4-3-3): Elana – Bonnart, Baša, Chedjou, Digne – Balmont, Gueye, Martin – Rodelin, Kalou, Payet
Sochaux (4-2-3-1): Pouplin – Sauget, Kanté, Carlão, Roussillon – Lopy, Doubai – Boudebouz, Nogueira, Bakambu – Sio

Lille played their usual 4-3-3 with the front players Rodelin-Kalou-Payet interchanging positions and switching roles. Gueye anchoring the midfield with Balmont and Martin the inside-midfielders (Balmont often bursting through the lines and joining the front three, and Martin playing a little deeper controlling the tempo from the central areas). Both fullbacks pushed up high, meaning that Lille were attacking with six or seven players at times – the wide-forwards in the front three coming inside and overloading Sochaux’s central defenders with the width coming from the fullbacks.

Lille's forwards (green) all central, fullbacks (pink) provide width, support from inside-midfielders (blue)

Lille’s forwards (green) all central, fullbacks (pink) provide width, support from inside-midfielders (blue)

Sochaux were defending deep with two banks of four, their 4-2-3-1 becoming a 4-4-1-1, but they were getting outnumbered in the central areas (and unable to effectively cover the flanks) by the movement of Lille’s forwards and the surges of Balmont from midfield. Nogueira, Sochaux’s ‘number 10’, did nothing to interfere with Lille’s buildup play leaving his man, the anchor Gueye, always available if needed by his team-mates:

Theoretically when a 4-2-3-1 meets a 4-3-3, the two midfielders on each team (Balmont-Martin for Lille and Lopy-Doubai for Sochaux) face off, with the 4-3-3’s defensive midfielder (Gueye) being picked up by the 4-2-3-1’s attacking midfielder (Nogueira), but with Nogueira neglecting this duty Sochaux were akin to a 4-4-2 in midfield, and Lille were able to rotate the ball from side-to-side through Gueye and their forward players always had an out-ball.

In The Italian Job, by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti, José Mourinho explained why his Chelsea 4-3-3 was so successful against the predominant English 4-4-2: “If I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makélelé behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makélelé, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.

With Gueye un-harassed in his ‘Makélelé’ role, Lille were free to start attacks, rotate the ball from flank to flank, and the man in possession always had passing options. Additionally, with the left-back Digne pushing so far up, and Sochaux’s fullbacks having to play narrow to stop Lille overrunning the defence through the centre, Boudebouz on the right-wing was playing almost as an auxiliary fullback having to track the advanced runs of Digne, or he was coming inside to try to stop Sochaux being overrun in the central areas.

Lille attack with three forwards (green), both fullbacks (pink), and the midfield (blue) supports

Lille attack with three forwards (green), both fullbacks (pink), and the midfield (blue) supports

Some statistics give an idea of just how dominant Lille were in the game. They had 61% possession, 23 shots to Sochaux’s 6, enjoyed an 88% pass completion, and put in 33 crosses. Their midfield was especially strong: Gueye 101 passes, 94% completed; Martin 105 passes, 87% completed; Balmont 103 passes, 92% completed.

Without possession Lille were equally impressive, the front three, supported by the midfield, closing down Sochaux’s defenders and forcing them to launch the ball long in hopeful punts upfield.

With no options left Sochaux are forced to play long balls out of defence

With no options left Sochaux are forced to play long balls out of defence

This was an extremely organised ‘guiding’ pressure, leaving the man on the ball with no options. Note the image above and the player matchups – there’s no other option but to play the ball long. For large parts of the game Sochaux couldn’t get out of their half – the front three of Lille, plus the midfield, and the fullbacks closed the Sochaux play down before it could start.

Lille's pressing leaving no options for the man on the ball

Lille’s pressing leaving no options for the man on the ball

Second half

With Boudebouz substituted for Privat (Nogueira switching to right-midfield) Sochaux were now playing a very standard looking 4-4-2 and their problems didn’t dissipate for the reasons listed above – they could count themselves lucky to be only 0-3 down when another change was made.

In the 55th minute Sochaux took off Sio (who had probably been Sochaux’s best player: his energy up front giving Sochaux a slight reprieve from the Lille pressure) and brought on Mathieu Peybernes, a centre-back/defensive midfielder by trade, to sit in front of the back four as the team shape became a 4-1-4-1.

This gave Sochaux two things: they had another defensive body in the central areas to stem the Lille attacks, and it meant they could start to play their way out of defence.

By this time Lille were beginning to sit back and not pressure Sochaux in those high areas, but they were still by far the better side for the remainder of the game and created further chances, until Sochaux equalised out of nowhere.

We committed a series of fouls and played pretty awfully in the last twenty minutes.” – Rudi Garcia (Lille coach) after the game

In the 79th minute, in a rare foray forward, Sochaux won a free-kick which was lofted forward by Nogueira. Kanté got just ahead of Bonnart, and as he gained half a yard on his marker, a Sochaux player fell in front of the Lille man meaning Kanté was unmarked as the ball reached the far post. Instead of killing the game, unbelievably Lille now went looking for a fourth goal, and in the 84th minute a loss of possession in midfield resulted in a free-kick 31 yards out. Nogueira struck it straight down the middle and Elana badly misjudged the strike – he actually appeared to jump out of its way. Four minutes later Baša pulled down Privat on the edge of the box when there was no need (Bakambu was covering) and after another Nogueira free-kick which Elana was slow to react to it was 3-3.

A surreal end to a game that Lille had completely dominated. This wasn’t so much a heroic fightback from Sochaux, as a series of needless free-kicks and goalkeeping errors giving opportunities to a side that had been comprehensively outplayed.

Olympique Lyonnais: Defensive Blunders

Originally posted in a slightly edited form on French Football Weekly 28th April 2013

(Part one is here)

Part two:

Lyonnais fans might want to stop here. The individual errors leading to losses over the last three months is quite simply staggering.

If we return to the close of the transfer-window at the end of January, Garde’s favoured defence was Umtiti-Lovren-Biševac-Réveillère, which was the back four when OL travelled to Corsica to play AC Ajaccio.

A lovely cross from Rachid Ghezzal for Lacazette to volley impressively gave Lyon a 1-0 lead away to AC Ajaccio, and at this time Lyon were top of the table with PSG and were being spoken of as genuine contenders for the championship. Four minutes after Lacazette’s impressive opener, Lyon collectively hit an undeniable and very apparent self-destruct button.

Attempting to clear the ball upfield, and with all the time in the world, Milan Biševac managed to lose possession in this position by kicking the ball at Filipe Saad, who found Chakhir Belghazouani to score the equaliser.

Biševac to Saad

Biševac to Saad

Then, 8 minutes later, his defensive partner(-in-crime) at the heart of Lyon’s defence, Dejan Lovren, didn’t even jump when a cross came in from the left wing, merely watching the ball sail over him and land on Adrian Mutu’s forehead. Mutu seemed genuinely surprised by the ball reaching him, but reacted well to head in. Ajaccio 2-1 Lyon.

Lovren doesn't jump, Mutu doesn't need to

Lovren doesn’t jump, Mutu doesn’t need to

Not content, in the 90th minute Lovren brought down Dennis Oliech in the penalty box, earning his third red card of the season and a penalty for Ajaccio, which Mutu converted, 3-1.

Assuming that individual errors were out their system and the mistakes against Ajaccio were an aberration, Samuel Umtiti moved to centre-back for Lovren, and Mouhamadou Dabo coming in at left-back against Lille the following week. Instead Garde saw Biševac try to hold a high line with Umtiti whilst there’s no pressure on the man with the ball, and with a runner going outside the Serbian defender, as Lille hit Lyon on a counter-attack:

Biševac watches as the ball is played through the OL defence

Biševac watches as the ball is played through the OL defence

Biševac also earned a red card and gave away a penalty for a deliberate handball as the attack pictured above reached the OL penalty area.

Worse performances were to follow, but before then, there was the Europa League and a trip to London. The games against Tottenham obviously focused the minds of Garde’s men: there was a 4-0 win over Bordeaux in-between those two Tottenham games, where Lyon didn’t have to get anywhere near the level of performance they did against Spurs to dispatch les Girondins with ease.

Shortly after those games with Tottenham, Lyon played out a 0-0 draw against Olympique Marseille where neither side were willing to risk going for the win, although OM looked the more likely to edge it of the two.

And then those individual errors that started to appear at the start of 2013 became more, and more, frequent.

Commit the sort of errors listed here against Tottenham, and Bale, Holtby, Adebayor and co would have run up a cricket score. In those two games the team was focused, well-drilled, and they were almost through to the next round to face Internazionale after taking the scalp of one of England’s finest. Perhaps that was on their mind as their travelled to Corsica again, this time to play Ajaccio’s neighbours from the north of the island, Bastia.

OL haven’t enjoyed the best of times at Bastia, losing 17 of their last 26 games there, but Garde couldn’t have imagined what would occur on this occasion.

At the end of the first half OL had a free kick which Gourcuff floats into the box – all the Bastia players are defending, and they have a three-man wall.

OL free-kick. Three-man wall for Bastia

OL free-kick. Three-man wall for Bastia

After some head-tennis on the edge of the Bastia penalty area, a long clearance gives Bastia a two-versus-one break on goal whilst in their own half as both Lyon defenders and Gourcuff stand by as two of the Bastia wall head upfield. Bastia 1-0 Lyon.

The break past OL's defence, and Gourcuff (marked with blue)

The break past OL’s defence, and Gourcuff (marked with blue)

To say this is amateurish is to be unkind to amateur football. Olympique Lyonnais wants to play in the Champions League next year remember. More was to follow: early in the second half, with Bastia counter-attacking at speed, Lovren didn’t even hold up the play here.

Lovren unable to hold up Khazri

Lovren unable to hold up Khazri

The Lyon centre-back half-flicked a leg in the direction of Whabi Khazri as the striker ran past him before laying the ball for Anthony Modeste to finish. One of the more straightforward goals Bastia have scored all year.

Khazri to Modeste and it's Bastia 2-1 Lyon

Khazri to Modeste and it’s Bastia 2-1 Lyon

That made it Bastia 2-1. The third goal was a repeat of the second, but with added comedy: the ball is played into Bastia’s right-channel for Claudio Beauvue, and as Lovren goes to check the threat he manages to fall over. Beauville brings the ball into the penalty box, pulls it back for Florian Thauvin, Bastia 3-1 Lyon.

Then, with OL trailing by two goals, the right-back Dabo tries to dribble his way out of trouble in a dangerous position: Khazri steals it from him, one pass through to Modeste later and it’s Bastia 4-1 Lyon.

With defending like that it’s obvious that Rémi Garde needed to change something. Anthony Réveillère was still injured, so for the game against Sochaux-Montbéliard, the full-backs remained Umtiti and Dabo, but he replaced Biševac with Bakary Koné. The Burkina Faso international isn’t the most composed of defenders, but he’s quick and determined, so the back four was Umtiti-Lovren-Koné-Dabo.

This is where Garde perhaps panics. Lyon are losing games to unbelievable errors, he decides to switch to a 4-4-2 with Clément Grenier as a left-midfielder and pair Lisandro and Gomis up front, although both strikers prefer to play as a lone-forward, and after three years at the club together they still look uncomfortable in a 4-4-2.

The game was as one would expect with one team shorn of confidence, the other looking not to concede, and both sides lining up in a 4-4-2: the teams cancelled each other out. Sochaux defended deep and tried to soak up pressure, whereas Lyon played a high line, lots of pressing, but to no avail as the respective midfield battles were tied – the closest Lyon got to opening Sochaux up was when Umtiti at left-back pushed up, with Grenier coming inside, looking to outnumber Sochaux.

And, of course, Lyon gave away two bad goals. The first was terrible marking at a corner: Giovanni Sio ran past a sleeping Umtiti to head in.

Sio, and Umtiti belatedly trying to mark him

Sio, and Umtiti belatedly trying to mark him

With the score at 1-1 (Lyon scored through a penalty) and chasing a winner at the close of the game, Umtiti attempted a cross which struck the first defender allowing Sochaux to clear downfield. In a moment of madness, the covering defender Lovren managed to lose the ball to Sio, who took the ball downfield before playing it to Cédric Bakambu. Lyon 1-2 Sochaux.

Sio and Lovren

Sio and Lovren

Next up were Reims, who have averaged three shots on target per game this season. Garde persisted with the unimpressive 4-4-2, dropped Lovren and recalled Biševac to partner Koné in central defence, but this did nothing to stem the tide.

OL's Umtiti to Reims' Devaux

OL’s Umtiti to Reims’ Devaux

Early on, from a goal kick, Umtiti headed the ball straight to Reims midfielder Antoine Devaux who played it first time for Christopher Glombard, and Vercoutre did well to save.

Devaux plays it through for Glombard

Devaux plays it through for Glombard

Umtiti, playing at left-back, also managed to appear unexpectedly in central midfield for no good reason, with Reims immediately playing the ball into the area he’d just vacated for the right-winger Diego who hit the post with a powerful shot. When it arrived, the Reims goal came from a familiar source, Lyon losing possession with Umtiti high up the pitch, the ball was played down OL’s left, and Biševac wrestling Diego to the ground with his arm wrapped around the winger’s neck as they entered the penalty area near the byline: red card (again), penalty (again), Reims 1-0 Lyon.

And then they travelled to face the defending champions Montpellier, which ended with Garde saying how lucky Lyon had been, and with MHSC coach René Girard storming down the tunnel in disgust as the final whistle blew.

Lyon’s individual and collective defensive failings were again present; able to look along the line to maintain the offside, both Dabo at left-back and Umtiti at centre-back play Anthony Mounier onside, who was unlucky to see his chipped shot go just over.

Two defenders, able to look along the line, play Mounier onside

Two defenders, able to look along the line, play Mounier onside

Here, after giving the ball away in midfield, OL have to defend a break. It’s played out to Souleymane Camara, who’s being tracked by Koné. Unbelievably, Koné dives in now, and Camara skips past the challenge and delivers a low cross for Rémy Cabella, who saw his shot blocked by Dabo.

Koné prepares to dive in

Koné prepares to dive in

There were other errors, too many to list, although El Kaoutari’s completely free header from a corner should probably be mentioned as he was in so much space, 8 yards from goal, that it was unclear who was supposed to be marking him. The defender should have scored instead of heading straight at Vercoutre, and Lyon escaped again.

Bear in mind that this isn’t a list of OL’s defensive errors over the last few months. These are the ones that spring to mind after watching a lot of Lyon. It’s not exhaustive, nor complete, far from it. I dread to think of what would become of Lyon’s defence if they didn’t have Gonalons sitting in front and protecting it.

Umtiti is an outstanding prospect, and will almost certainly develop into a tremendous player; Biševac came to Lyon from PSG only once Thiago Silva was signed; Lovren is a highly-talented 23 year-old Croatian international and reputedly a target for AC Milan, Internazionale, and Liverpool amongst others; Bakary Koné was part of the Burkino Faso side that won the African Cup of Nations by defending. These are not bad players by any stretch of the imagination, but they are playing badly.

As the 2012-2013 season got underway, Lyon sold Hugo Lloris, along with Manuel Neuer of Bayern perhaps the outstanding goalkeeper of this generation. Lloris’ deputy, Rémy Vercoutre has become the number one at Lyon, and over the course of the season has looked like what he is: a solid backup. That isn’t to be harsh on Vercoutre, he’s a decent keeper, but he’s been guilty of poor form too, and is clearly not filling the hole left by Lloris’ departure. Even chipping in with some howlers of his own this season, and with his kicking being poor (against Toulouse he managed to turn goal kicks into 30 yard passes to opposing forwards) this is adding more pressure on a young defence that is struggling for confidence and form.

Rémi Garde and the coaching staff need to take take some responsibility for a defence not being able to defend reliably for 90 minutes. There is something fundamentally wrong at a club that commits a vast number of errors over the course of not yet half a season – and play Tottenham over two legs within that same season and look defensively impressive.

And yet, the larger proportion of the blame is probably with Jean-Michel Aulas. Perhaps no other manager in Europe is in the position of Garde. Champions League football is demanded by the owner, whilst the owner himself is asset-stripping the club of its senior players. Ex-captain Lisandro has said how demoralising it was to see players leave before the start of the season, and then in the winter transfer-window Michel Bastos was sent to Schalke on loan for 18 months, a bid from Monaco for Jimmy Briand accepted (the deal broke down over personal terms), Gomis has turned down moves to Fenerbahce, Fulham and Rubin Kazan in the past as the club try to get him off the wage bill, and Lisandro himself was rumoured to be on his way to Tottenham. Little wonder he felt he couldn’t continue as captain. Little wonder they started to fall apart as team and look distracted within games. Watching Lyon over the last three months, the question shouldn’t be, ‘how did Lyon lose ground on PSG’, but rather ‘how on earth are they as high as third’?

Garde has made some mistakes with the side, that’s understandable as he’s still trying to find a long-term formula, but some of his statements to the press are baffling; before the home game against Toulouse he was calling on his players to remember that good performances for Lyon should earn them a lucrative contract for next season with a different club. It’s hard to imagine, say Pep Guardiola, using that motivational tool. Two weeks earlier, as Lyon switched to 4-4-2 against Sochaux in desperation rather than tactical master-planning, Garde was asked about the Ligue 1 title: “We will continue to believe in our chances. We’re not showing enough, but internally, among the squad, I can feel that the players also believe that we can do it.” Again, not a great rallying cry, or maybe something was lost in translation, but at that moment it was obvious he, and his squad, lacked any sort of confidence to get through the game against Sochaux (and they gave away two soft goals to prove it), let alone challenge for the title.

Garde is a smart, knowledgeable, and likeable man, and right now it’s impossible to judge his time at Lyon: he needs a season in charge of a club that isn’t selling its players or hawking them across Europe to various suitors. A team built around the talents of Gonalons, Grenier, Lacazette, Ghezzal, and Fofana could be a real force in French and European football for years to come.

So, how on earth did Lyon manage to defeat a strong Montpellier at Stade de la Mosson? A lot of fortune with their defending, and a healthy dose of individual brilliance from Clément Grenier.

All teams put at least one player on the edge of the penalty box when defending corners, it enables the defending side to launch counter-attacks, regain possession, or close down any opposing players the ball may fall to. Here’s how Montpellier usually defend corners, with Bryan Dabo fulfilling this role for MHSC.

Dabo on edge of penalty area

Dabo on edge of penalty area

In stoppage-time and the game level at 1-1, the corner came in from Gourcuff, the ball is cleared and falls for Grenier, all alone.

ol-mhsc-09

He rifles a superb half-volley, totally unsaveable, making it Montpellier 1-2 Lyon with the last kick of the game. But where was Dabo for Montpellier? He’d been substituted in the 85th minute and his replacement either forgot or didn’t know his defensive duties at the set-piece.

It’s about time Garde had a little luck to call his own.

Olympique Lyonnais: Tactical Introduction

Originally posted in a slightly edited form on French Football Weekly 28th April 2013

Rémi Garde’s Lyon has used a variety of formations this season, utilising 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, and as a one-off against PSG in December a 3-5-2, but the main work-horse is their 4-1-4-1.

ol-mhsc-01

The back four (in blue) is shielded by the ‘anchor’ Maxime Gonalons (in red), with four midfielders (in white) and one forward (in yellow). The wide midfielders often defend deep like this (level with Gonalons) to protect the flanks if the opposition plays with a lot of width.

Garde likes to play forwards, Jimmy Briand, Alexandre Lacazette, Lisandro López, in the wide positions to make a 4-3-3 when attacking or sometimes to press the opponent when the ball is in enemy territory.

Pressing/Shape

Against Tottenham in the first-leg of their Europa League knockout tie, Lyon were extremely aggressive with their pressing – but the striker’s duties (Bafétimbi Gomis in that game) were to engage the centre-backs differently. Jan Vertonghen’s distribution is far superior to that of William Gallas, and Gomis was tasked with pressing Vertonghen, ‘steering’ the ball to Gallas, and forcing Gallas to play the ball up the field – discouraging the play returning to Vertonghen. Likewise with Spurs’ central midfielders; Moussa Dembele was pressed immediately and not allowed any time, almost to the point of being man-marked, whereas the ball was ‘directed’ to Scott Parker.In the image below you can see the player matchups and Parker (marked with green) being left alone – the centre-forward, Gomis (marked with grey) is discouraging the ball to the central defenders.

Parker (marked with green) left alone

Parker (marked with green) left alone

Parker was harried after he received the ball, but with Tottenham’s fullbacks pushed up very high, he was often forced to dump the ball on the centre-backs, who were being pressed intelligently by the hard-working Gomis.

In the return leg in Lyon, the home side’s strategy (even though trailing 1-2) was to sit back a lot more, inviting pressure and trying to hit Tottenham on the counter-attack, Gomis again was detailed to pay attention to Vertonghen. Here he is pressing the Tottenham defender whilst Gallas and Parker (marked with pink) are left alone.

ol-spurs-02

Let’s contrast this with the game from last weekend against Montpellier who, like Tottenham, play 4-2-3-1. In this game Garde had a different scheme. The centre-forward (Lisandro) took one of the opposition midfielders, and an inside-midfielder (this time it’s Steed Malbranque marked with yellow) moved up and took the other. There was very little pressing of the centre-backs – the priority was to try to stop the ball being played through the double-pivot of Montpellier’s central midfielders.

Midfielder and centre-forward on Montpellier's double-pivot

Midfielder and centre-forward on Montpellier’s double-pivot

Below we see this in action, with Lyon ‘guiding’ the ball back to the central defender, and the match-ups across the pitch to eliminate passing options for the central midfielders in their 4-2-3-1. Those dark blue and green matchups are Gonalons with the central midfielder Bryan Sabo, and Clément Grenier taking the number 10, Younès Belhanda – normally Sabo would be playing deeper and Grenier’s responsibility, with Gonalons picking up Belhanda. Marked with brown is Malbranque, again high up the pitch pressing the deep-lying central midfielder Benjamin Stambouli, to direct the play backwards.

The ball is 'guided' back to Montpellier's last man

The ball is ‘guided’ back to Montpellier’s last man

After some horrendous individual defensive errors in numerous games, Garde has started trying to protect his back four in recent weeks with unabashedly defensive tactics and looking to hit teams on the break, even when playing at home, like he did against Tottenham.

In mid-April, when Toulouse were the visitors, Garde tried a 4-2-3-1 – defensively becoming a 4-4-1-1 with two banks of four:

Two deep banks of four at home to Toulouse

Two deep banks of four at home to Toulouse

If the ball was lost further up the pitch then OL tried to play a narrow 4-2-3-1 with the wide-midfielders coming inside, before falling back to a 4-4-1-1 as above. Less concerned about the flanks against Toulouse, Garde wanted to stop the ball being played through the centre.

The 4-2-3-1 'narrows' forcing the ball wide

The 4-2-3-1 ‘narrows’ forcing the ball wide

Yoann Gourcuff

A terrible run of results for Lyon saw Yoann Gourcuff coming back into the team, after a series of niggling injuries, for the game against Toulouse. Gourcuff was played in the number 10 position behind Lisandro, switching to a 4-2-3-1, with Grenier alongside Gonalons as a double-pivot. This wasted Grenier terribly, the thinking must have been that Grenier’s range of passing would help OL counter-attack, but it resulted in a very uninspired and workmanlike performance. The following week at Montpellier, the pack was re-shuffled and Gourcuff was stationed on the left of a five-man midfield as Garde reverted to the 4-1-4-1, with Grenier and Malbranque as inside-midfielders and Gonalons as the ‘holder’.

Gourcuff’s touch and decision-making have never been poorer, nor has he been more lacking in confidence, and being played in a variety of positions can’t be helping him. So it was odd he was tasked with occupying the left-midfield berth, although given licence to drift to the centre, against Montpellier. In this attack, Gourcuff has moved in from the left and across to a central area, both Lisandro and Briand (pink) are in good positions on the edge of the penalty box, and Grenier and Malbranque (yellow) are supporting from midfield.

The ball Gourcuff should play

The ball Gourcuff should play

The ball to be played is a one-touch pass through to Briand, but instead, Gourcuff tried to flick the ball behind with his instep to Lisandro. Gourcuff failed to get any contact on the ball (in fact it looked like a dummy on first viewing), Briand threw his arms up in exasperation, with the ball apparently rolling out for a throw-in.

Chasing after the loose ball, Lyon youth product Grenier picked it up, one touch to control, the second a beautiful cross for Lisandro (being sloppily semi-marked by Hilton) to score the game’s opening goal with a nice header at the near post. The contrast between Gourcuff’s needlessly elaborate poor play and Grenier’s beautifully simple approach to the game couldn’t have been clearer.

Maxime Gonalons

Probably the key player for Lyon – and it’s hard to imagine them without him – a youth product and now team captain at 23 years old, he is in the Sergio Busquets mould of modern ‘holders’. Not an aggressive all-action midfielder, say Toure Yaya or Patrick Vieira; his game is based on positioning, his reading of the play, and short accurate passing.

It’s rare to see Lyon man-mark, and intriguingly in the return leg against Tottenham in the Europa League, Garde chose to man-mark, not Gareth Bale, but Lewis Holtby. Worried by Holtby’s playmaking talents, rather than Bale’s dribbling and extraordinary shooting, Gonalons was to stick to his man like glue.

Gonalons man-marks Holtby across the pitch

Gonalons man-marks Holtby across the pitch

When Spurs started rotating their three attacking midfielders, with Bale coming central and Holtby moving to the left (occasionally Aaron Lennon would pop up in the centre too), Gonalons played his natural game and closed Bale down, but didn’t man-mark him as he had Holtby, and when Bale returned to the flank and Holtby came central once more, Gonalons picked up where he’d left off and returned to marking Holtby.

Part two: Defensive Blunders